Chapter 3, sort of - $40,000 and I still can't cook. A critical essay about culinary school.

May 25, 2013    » posted by: admin

In the news lately a number of jabs have been taken at my alma mater as I prepared this story. Story became essay, back to story, into manifesto, …edited and retracted but not diluted. The Culinary Institute of America, and culinary schools in the United States in general have come under much needed scrutiny in the last few years after having unquestioned control over how a young aspiring chef should go about achieving their dreams. Thankfully they are being put before the inquisition, culminating in a student walk out that made national news ( I attended the CIA, as it is known, in 1994 right out of high school. I had worked in restaurants in high school, did a stint in the best French restaurant in Charlotte, NC over the summer, and left for Hyde Park, NY with a head full of dreams of learning the ways of France, America, Italy, and all the other great cuisines of the world that were kept secret in the best restaurants of the world. I went through the program and never felt like I was getting all I could get. The standards were not challenging, and obviously continue that way. The curriculum was dated, out of touch with real application, and far from what trends were even in the restaurants I knew, which were far from palaces of haute cuisine. Finally, I graduated and learned firsthand how bad I had been rooked as my huge student loan package came full force the same time I was learning how much a fresh graduate of the country’s finest culinary school earned. All of this adds up to a big glass of bile I have been swallowing in many forms for my entire career and watch as young cooks come through my door with the same problems 17 years later. Gordon Hamersley , when I worked for him, asked me to work with a young woman on my station who was thinking of going to school and wanted to work a shift to see what it was all about. I told him I wouldn’t be positive and shouldn’t. He said that might be exactly what she needed to hear. Maybe it was, and is.

Culinary school is a trade school dressed up to look like an accredited university, but it is just a trade school and should administer their requirements accordingly. Cooking is a trade, if your fucking good you can make it a craft. There are an honored few like Ferran Adria, Paul Bocuse, Michel Guerrard, Michel Bras, David Chang, Pascal Barbot, Dan Barber, Rene Redzepi, James Beard, and the true genius Fernand Point who transcend the craft to art, even though all of them would slap me for giving them such status. Cooking is a craft that demands discipline, structure, understanding of time honored technique, and willingness to work craftsman hours and deal with craftsman work environments to succeed. However, the modern culinary school does not look for these candidates. They look for whoever they can get. Students every day are admitted to the schools dreaming of dare to be great situations that will immediately catapult them to the top, with the help of their degree. They are asked to fill out a dumbed down college application, roughly equivilant to a job application with an essay, and are promptly notified that they have been accepted. These students are never asked if they can work a 60 hour week on their feet, hold a hand tool so long your hand blisters up and be proud of it, or speak a god damn foreign language (which you are up a creek without a paddle if you can’t, preferably Spanish). They then, just like me, railroad you through a structured program with very few checkpoints or challenges producing a constant stream of student graduates but not giving them the tools or skills to succeed in the environments they should be able to. Chef Tom Collichio, of Craft as well as the tv show Top Chef, in a recent interview expressed his disappointment with current people watering down the work force and I agree. ( Get back to work and earn your place before school and after. This is not a television show, it is a job and the schools should make this clear to people wanting to learn before they let them in the door and definitely before they release them with a stamp of approval.

The curriculum of the modern day culinary school has changed drastically in the 17 years since I went to the CIA, but it is still drastically out of touch with the current, past, and emerging trends. I was reminded of this recently when the CIA announced the renovation of one of their restaurants on campus staffed by the students. They changed The Escoffier Room from a classic French fine dining concept to a modern, French, American, who-knows-what-the-fuck-it-is concept and then named it after Paul Bocuse. Paul Bocuse made his career executing French classics in a market driven seasonal foundation that made him one of the greatest chefs of all time. His deep rooted respect for tradition, while looking at those traditions and challenging how to make them better, made him and his cooking famous and rightfully so. I am still awed by his books and turn to them frequently for inspiration. Then why would the best culinary school in the country name a restaurant after him and then develop the concept of the restaurant around the cooking trends that Chef Bocuse so venomously protested against in the twilight of his career? New modern techniques coming out of Spain, Scandinavia, and America should be taught but not under the name of someone who disagreed with them and taught the opposite. The CIA develops a curriculum around show, tricks, and a veil of classic technique but they are out of touch and don’t understand what the modern cook needs to succeed. Chef Bocuse did. Can you break down 30 chickens in an hour? Can you bang out a perfect omelette 100 times in a row? Can you blanch a vegetable? Can you sweat a vegetable? Can you research and design a new dish? Not design a whole imaginary restaurant, I mean come up with a special in 30 minutes or less that will sell and might become a menu item? Can you properly season????? I think you know what the answer is because these were all challenges I was given after graduating and failed miserably. Chef Bocuse would have yelled at me daily but would have given me those basic skills, a star on my resume that is unparalleled, and a few francs and a glass of wine occasionally for it. It would have been a foundation for a craftsman, who then could dream rather than the dreamer who struggled to learn the craft.

Culinary school is fucking expensive. The CIA is currently 30,000 a year, up 10,000 a year from when I attended in 1994. On every level it is a high cost for what you get out of it. This argument is as old as private education, which makes it as old as education itself because you know that the first organized schools in Persia, Greece, or China were really expensive too. Still, the modern culinary school has a profit driven focus that hurts the student, provides an inadequate education for the cost, and creates an expectation with responsibility for debt (or for the lucky, expectation from your benefactor to get rich and famous) that is unachievable without skipping the much needed “time in the trench”. The answer from the schools is always passed on to the employers that they should pay more and the degree will make you ready for these jobs. The argument for a higher educated workforce is sound, but overlooks the need for leaders to know the way of the employee and the schools are unable to provide that experience. If a culinary school were able to graduate, consistently, students who could actually jump onto a station in a busy restaurant and bring the trained details to their work at the same time then there would be some value in the degree. That is not the case. The bulk of graduates are unprepared for the stress, speed, and discipline that any professional kitchen is based on and they fail. Unable to perform on the most basic level leaves graduates with a huge void in their resume and they are unable to move into the management positions where the compensation is enough to afford the price of their education. Where does that leave them? Stuck, broke, disenfranchised, and unable to work in the jobs they were promised were waiting for them. Is this a bigger issue about the American work ethic, where it has gone, and how can we regain it? Maybe, but that is a bigger issue that falls on parents as well as schools. None the less, culinary schools have a responsibility to provide graduates with the ability to place in the job market comparable to the price of their education and they fail their graduates and the industry currently and historically in this task.

Not enough basic skills, a lack of understanding of current techniques, and cost of graduation out of proportion with the job market. What can be done? Raise the standard for graduation. Make sure the graduates are prepared with better curriculum that is relative to the work. Actually work them in mock environments with smaller class sizes. Hire instructors that know what is current in the industry because they have been there, succeeded, and still work in the field. That is the only way to truly keep up with what is trendy and valuable. Be realistic to applicants, students, and most importantly graduates with what they can expect when they leave school. If applicants enroll and graduates leave with a false sense of grandeur for what they should expect in the job market and what the true compensation is for the job they will be qualified for then the school is doing nothing but a disservice to them and the industry. A better educated cooking workforce is part of what has made the American dining scene one of the best in the world but it has come at an incredible cost and left many people in hard times with few options. There is a light at the end of the tunnel but culinary schools need to do their part and take a fairer stance to survive and provide before anymore young dreams of a fantastic career in cooking are crushed by a system that hinders rather then helps. For now, if your thinking of culinary school, find the Paul Bocuse near you and knock on their back kitchen door and offer to work for free. It will serve you much better then the CIA. It might even get you a glass of wine after work.